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EST Marathon 2011: Series A

A Time to Kill

Arena Stage premieres a mostly satisfying stage adaptation of John Grisham's best-selling novel about a murder trial in Mississippi.

By Washington, DC
Dion Graham and Sebastian Arcelus
in A Time to Kill
(© Joan Marcus)
Dion Graham and Sebastian Arcelus
in A Time to Kill
(© Joan Marcus)
Is murder ever permissible? That's the question at the heart of A Time to Kill, the mostly satisfying stage adaptation of John Grisham's best-selling novel, now receiving its world premiere at Arena Stage.

In a small Mississippi backwater town in 1985, local lawyer Jake Brigance (played with a bracing mixture of ambition and altruism by Sebastian Arcelus) takes on the case of an African-American man, Carl Lee Haley (vividly portrayed by Dion Graham), who murders the two white men who raped and savagely beat his 10-year-old daughter.

Despite his crime, Hailey is a sympathetic figure: a strong man who loves his family and who possesses an unsettling belief that he will be able to successfully take the law into his own hands.

Rupert Holmes' dialogue is uncluttered and almost terse, and he has made the story line feel economical. Yet, the work retains the mossy rich texture of the Deep South, and the novel's complicated themes of race, ambition, and justice are clearly investigated.

Director Ethan McSweeny's pacing is energetic and the show's two-and-a-half-hour running time passes quickly. Evocative music, rapid scenic changes utilizing James Noone's turntable set, and startling lighting effects create a film-like ambiance. Actors often climb onto the Kreeger's thrust stage from the audience, and lawyers often face us in the courtroom, putting us in the role of jury.

Unfortunately, however, McSweeny has his cast of 16 (some tackling multiple roles) play some of the dialogue for distracting laughs. Some of the lighter moments properly release pent-up tension, but others merely drain away vital dramatic energy.

This flaw is most evident with Brennan Brown's over-the-top portrayal of Rufus Buckley, the smooth and politically ambitious county D.A. Brown struts and preens, turning the layered character of Holmes' script into a vainglorious caricature, rather than the canny and determined man who sees himself as a potential governor. Intense moments are squandered, especially at the finale when it becomes apparent that Buckley wins regardless of how Hailey's trial turns out. We should be chilled; but because Buckley has been turned into a joke, a message about political dexterity and the ethics of opportunism is lost.

As the rapists, Jeffrey M. Bender and Joe Isenberg, greasy mullets abounding, show us lowlifes we are encouraged to hate. Their unmitigated evil enhances the ethical conundrum created when Hailey dispenses assault-rifle justice at the very courthouse where the legal system is prepared to punish them.

We remain unsure about the outcome of Hailey's trail until the jury finishes its work, in a scene daringly played off-stage. In the end, it's the journey, not the destination, which makes A Time to Kill so gripping.


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